A Jewish Summer Camp That Doesn’t Feel Like One
‘Please can we go to this camp?” my older son asked me after a parlor meeting in my town with the director of an overnight camp.
“I really want to go!” my younger son said.
I wasn’t ready for this.
Sure, one could argue that when you go to a parlor meeting about an overnight summer camp in the dead cold of January, you’re in the market to send your kids to, well, an overnight summer camp. But for me, this meeting was just another stop in a yearlong exercise in due diligence, for that far-off future day when we’d possibly, eventually, send the kids to overnight camp.
My husband, baby daughter and pregnant self had visited camps over the summer as part of our research. We went to an all-boys camp in the beautiful Adirondacks where my husband spent many summers as a child. We went to an arts camp in Connecticut where kids were learning how to blow glass. We visited a camp in the Berkshires that seemed much smaller than when I’d last been there, 30 years ago. And we left each camp more confused than when we started. Each camp could give our kids a great experience: How were we supposed to choose?
We took a break for a few hours at a luxurious resort in the Berkshires one afternoon, letting our 1-year-old happily toddle in the grass while we sipped lemonade on the lawn. The gorgeous quiet was suddenly punctuated by multiple soundings of air horns, whistleblowing and boys yelling. Apparently, there was a camp nearby that my tour planning had missed — a well-known, “fancy” (read: expensive) camp where the boys would compete in sports from morning till night.
Look, I’m a Jewish mother: I’m proud of my kids. That being said, my particular kids are not exactly pro-athlete material. So did I want my kids to spend the summer trying to win, or trying to beat the other kids in whatever competition was that day’s schedule? Games are fun, but I found myself also wanting something else — something more substantive. I wanted camp to be their opportunity to experiment with training-wheel independence, but also, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that it was important for me to have them do so within a Jewish context.
Being Jewish is an essential part of who we are as a family — and that’s not going to stop being true over the summer. Camp is an opportunity for kids to see and test out who they are as individuals, without parents peering over their shoulders. And Jewish camp does one better by allowing kids the chance to see who they are, or could become, as Jews, independently and with kids from all over the country and world.
I wanted a camp that would be inclusive of all kinds of Judaism — secular, Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, unaffiliated. I wanted a kosher camp with healthy food. I wanted a camp with a culture of kindness rather than air-horn-encouraged competition. And I was certain that this kind of camp didn’t exist — until I found it at this parlor meeting in my own hometown.
Jewish camps are very different from how they were when I was a kid. Back then, it was either Jewish camp as in daven-and-call-the-dining-room-[aruchat-ochel or Jewish camp as in the-campers-are-all-Jewish-but-it’s-not-a-Jewish-camp-if-you-know-what-I-mean. Perhaps now that Jewish camp is not necessarily a given for many families, Jewish camps have gone out of their way to be more diverse.
Back then, not many Jewish camps were transdenominational. And back then, camps were less specialized and more generic. These days, the options are almost endless. You can send your kids hiking in the mountains with a group that will still do morning prayers, and you can send a child with cancer to a Jewish camp for children who have life-threatening illnesses.
As it turns out, my search had been too “old-school”: Rather than visiting camps, my search would have been easier if I’d simply made a list of all the things I wanted in a camp, no matter how esoteric. Since there are so many camp options out there, chances are that the option does exist — or that someone is about to start such an option.
Eden Village Camp director Yoni Stadlin’s pitch was down to earth — literally. The camp, a comparatively new one in the Hudson Valley, is a Jewish environmental overnight camp. Kids work in the farm, doing everything from making challah and grape juice for the Sabbath to helping cook the food they eat. The campers milk goats and collect eggs, and when they want a snack, they pick it from a garden, not from a vending machine.
The director’s enthusiasm was contagious, as were the ringing endorsements of other campers. “It’s going to be so cool,” my younger son said, almost bouncing up and down with excitement at the thought of Eden Village Camp. When I asked him why, he said: “Because it’s going to be so much fun. We’re going to do planting and hiking and swimming and rock climbing. It’s all that and it’s kosher and Jewish, and we’re going to have Shabbat with new friends.”
Yes. He and his brother, after all, are all those things: fun, caring, interested, kosher and Jewish. And now, their camp will be, too.
Now that the decision is made, I can use the months ahead to savor our time together, all the sweeter because of our impending separation — and perhaps to sneak the occasional thought about whether it is too “helicopter mom” to put prestamped, pre-addressed postcards home in their backpacks when they go.
Jordana Horn is the former New York bureau chief for The Jerusalem Post and a contributing editor to the parenting website Kveller.com.